IMPHAL: A huge election issue in Manipur will remain invisible: It is the demand for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) status for the majority Meitei community. The Meiteis are dominant in two-third of the 60 constituencies across the Imphal Valley.
In the Imphal Valley, however, Meitei intellectuals and people on the streets are debating for and against the ST status demand. Yambem Laba, a former chairperson of the Manipur Human Rights Commission, is now the advisor to the Scheduled Tribe Demand Committee Manipur. Laba believes that although most Meiteis are Hindus, they still follow the old tribal system.
"Till 1935, the Meiteis were entered in the census of India as ST. In 1949-50 when the Constitution was drafted, former Assam Chief Minister Gopinath Bordoloi and JJ Nichols Roy of Meghalaya came to Manipur and asked whether the Meiteis wanted to be included as ST. They took the opinions of just three people - two Brahmins and a Sanskritised Meitei. They said how we can become ST because of the socio-economic lifestyles of the tribals," Laba said.
His said there was no "social mixing" between the Meiteis and the tribals in the olden days. "The two Brahmins said we are a superior community," Laba said, adding, "but our tribal traits and customs are still there. We are Hindus but still follow the old tribal system".
"My concept is political for us. We are controlling Indian sports. So, if we become ST, we can produce over 100 bureaucrats and police officers in India in 10 years' time. We can get a lot of jobs across categories," he argued. The reason for the demand is retaining power for a community in a shrinking geographical area.
"Meiteis, as a race, used to control areas up to Chindwin in Myanmar and Surma Valley in Bangladesh. Now, Meiteis are confined to 8 per cent of Manipur's area. Tribals are infiltrating Imphal by putting up candidates in polls," he said.
But few appear as determined as Laba. Prof L Rajen of Manipur University does not support the ST demand. "Any form of such an arrangement will not be good in the long run. We need a certain mechanism where different competing groups agree to certain things," said Rajen.
According to him, the demand for ST status is not because the Meiteis want jobs in the Central sector, but more importantly, because they can’t buy land in hill areas. "If the Manipur Land Revenue and Land Reforms Act can be tweaked, there cannot be any concern surrounding ST. People among Meiteis opposed to the ST status demand strongly feel that we have made achievements in the Indian political and social systems. We need to compete with the general category people. We are doing well in other areas. We have over 500 officers in the Army," said Rajen. He added that Hinduism has contributed a lot to the Meitei society.
Former police officer Thounaojam Brinda, who is contesting on a JD-U ticket, said that although the ST status demand has been raised by the Meitei and Meitei-Pangal communities, there is no consensus till now. "The ST status will ensure quota in terms of administrative posts. As regards land right, I don't think it will have any effect," she said.
Md Chingiz Khan, a Pangal Muslim who is a Ph.D scholar at the JNU, New Delhi, said the Pangals need ST status because of backwardness and geographical isolation. Pangal Muslims are an ethnic community in the Imphal Valley.
Lawyer Abhi Singh is concerned about the land for Meiteis. "Our land can be bought by anybody but we cannot buy land in the hills. Ours is a small land and parts of it have already gone to other people. It is a relevant demand. Job is secondary although there is a serious unemployment problem in the valley," said Singh.
Meanwhile, Laba fears the advent of railways and the Asian highway will bring in multinationals who will buy land at a premium. "The Constitution protects land only if you are a tribal," he said.
Sensitive issue for all
Manipur is a mosaic of communities, making the demand a hot potato for all parties. Also, the issue threatens to be divisive